Tag Archives: Engineering

When Good Things Fail

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(Update at bottom of post)

I’m never quite sure what to do when something I’ve raved about in previous columns fails on me. Do I trumpet its failure to the world immediately? Do I go through the normal customer service channels to get it fixed, or do I raise hell with their PR to ensure it gets sorted out by the best and the brightest techies they’ve got available? Do I keep quiet, assuming it’s a one-off?

Here’s the latest mishap: My Olympus DS-20 digital recorder died. Just like that. No warning, no long walk in the rain, no circumferentially advantaged person sitting on it. One minute it was fine, the next it wasn’t. No power, no sign of a flicker, nothing. And I’d only had it for about 14 months. Barely used it, actually (was supposed to be for my Loose Wireless podcasting project,which, ironically enough, was about to start an hour after I discovered the thing didn’t work.) I had recently installed some rechargable batteries in it, approved by the manual.

The thing, well actually three things, are:

  • I’ve long sung Olympus’ praises in this field. This was the fourth Olympus I’ve had; so what happens if someone reads one of my columns or blogs saying how good they are, when it turns out they aren’t?
  • Now that it’s gone bad on me, it’s not enough for it to be fixed. How can I sing its praises even if it is fixed?
  • More importantly, how can I ever rely on it or anything like it again?
  • Besides, I can’t really afford to go buying digital recorders willynilly. Do I look like the kind of person who can?

So, I’m troubled. I’m doubly troubled that there’s no PR person that I can find online at Olympus who might be able to take a good look at this situation and see whether my problem is an easy one to fix (maybe I’m forgetting to do something like turn it on, or look at it from a certain angle) and whether this is something they’ve noted a lot of (I notice the DS-20 is no longer being sold. Why?)

So, for the moment I’m rescinding all recommendations for Olympus digital recorders until I sort this out. It’s not that I don’t think they’re great; it’s just that I can’t be sure whether what happened to me isn’t going to be happening to other people’s. Given that the recordings are stored in flash memory, this is not the sort of gadget you can afford to have die on you at key moments in your life.

In the meantime I’m going to try to find a PR person to offer some insight on this.

Update Jan 21 2008: Olympus tell me the mainboard has died on the device and it would cost me US$125 to have it replaced. Since it’s possible to buy a new one for less than $100 (here, for example) I’m going to decline the offer. I’m also seeking an investigation from Olympus as to why this might have happened. Things do break, and this sort of thing happens. But I’m concerned that this happened without me actually doing anything the manual said I could do, and before I write glowingly about Olympus digital recorders again or recommend them to friends, I’m hoping to get some insight about what happened and whether it’s likely to happen to other people.

Foleo, Foleo, Where Art Thou?

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Caption competition:

“Is this a dagger I see before me?”

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”

Now you see it, now you don’t

Photo from BusinessWire

It has the grim predictability of a company that doesn’t seem sure of what it’s doing, and what people want. Ever since Ed Colligan unveiled the Foleo — a Linux-based sub-sub-notebook — a few months back, folks have been saying it was a mistake. Now it’s dead.

I liked the idea, but felt it was the wrong solution: the iPhone and the Nokia N800 seem to prove people now want something that isn’t just a workhorse, but another onramp to the social web, whereas the Foleo seemed to be aimed simply at business customers. Such folk have long been used to lugging heavy stuff around, so it made no sense.

Anyway, Ed has done the right thing and knocked the project on the head, taking a $10 million hit (while sparing a moment for the poor third party developers who committed time and resources to software to run on the dang thing). What is most telling, though, are the comments left on his blog post announcing the gadget’s demise. They reveal the frustration and supportive passion of Palm users around the world, and to me illustrate what people really want from the once-great company:

  • a better interface that isn’t so buggy and unreliable.
  • better battery life (the Foleo boasted six hours. But remember the IIIx: days and days on a couple of AAAs. How far backwards have we gone?)
  • more durable. The IIIx also survived a lot of bashing about.
  • a phone that isn’t a sop to the phone companies — in other words, so it can do VoIP, work on WiFi networks as well as cellular ones.
  • find a way of getting a bigger screen onto a Treo. How about projection?  
  • GPS. Things have moved on, Ed, and nowadays we expect our devices to fit a lot more in.
  • Like good cameras. Not just for snapping, but for scanning.
  • And 3.5G.
  • And probably WiMAX.
  • And big storage.
  • And decent software that can handle PDFs, flash, browsing and interactive stuff.
  • And decent keyboards (get back in bed with the ThinkOutside guys, or whoever bought them.) I still love my Bluetooth keyboard and can’t understand why they’re considered such an afterthought.
  • Voice commands and voice recognition.
  • USB connectivity

The bottom line, is that we’ve been thinking the PDA is dead, whereas we should be thinking the other way around: The smartphone is just a PDA with connectivity. A good PDA does all these things we’ve been talking about, and while we take calls on it, that’s a small part of what it is about. We just want the things we did on our PDA to be connected, that’s all.

That’s not just about being able to take calls, it’s about SMS, email, browsing, and of being able to meld into our environment — GPS to know where we are, cameras and HSDPA and GPS to take photos that go straight to Flickr, tools like Jaiku to wrap us into our social network. It’s still a digital assistant, it’s just a connected digital assistant.

As one commenter put it, it’s still a Getting Things Done Device.It’s just we do lots of different things these days, so a to do list shouldn’t be where you stop.

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An End to the Anonymity of Trash?

Britain is quietly introducing RFID (Radio Frequency Identity) tags to rubbish bins (trash cans) in a bid to measure the individual waste of each household and charge them accordingly. Some Britons are up in arms about this, saying that households have not been informed and calling it an abuse of privacy. Is it?

The UK’s Daily Mail reports that some bins, provided by local councils for households to dispose of their trash, contain coin-sized devices that monitor how much non-recyclable waste the owner throws out:

With the bugging technology, the electronic chips are carefully hidden under the moulded front ’lip’ of wheelie bins used by householders for non-recyclable waste. As the bin is raised by the mechanical hoister at the back of the truck, the chip passes across an antenna fitted to the lifting mechanism. That enables the antenna to ’read’ a serial number assigned to each property in the street.

A computer inside the truck weighs the bin as it is raised, subtracts the weight of the bin itself and records the weight of the contents on an electronic data card.

When the truck returns to the depot, all the information collected on the round is transmitted to a hand-held device and downloaded on to the council’s centralised computer. Each household can be billed for the amount of waste collected – even though they have already paid for the services through their council tax.

According to The Mail two German companies manufacture the bins and sensors, Sulo and RFID specialist Deister Electronic.

As with all such things, the story reflects local fears, obsessions and behaviour. First off, drinking: The Mail quotes a local council chairman saying he believed the chips “were simply to ensure bins could be returned to the right addresses if they got mixed up or drunks rolled them off”. Second, avoiding paying: The opposition Conservative party warns that “people will simply start dumping bags in their neighbours’ gardens or at the end of the street to avoid paying”. And then there’s the whole castle thing: a council spokesman in Wiltshire says the chips were “to sort out disputes between householders about whose wheelie bin is whose. If there are any arguments we can just send out an officer to scan the chip and settle the argument.” Oh, and then there’s the whole WWII hang-up: The headline at The Evening Standard’s This is London website is “Germans plant bugs in our wheelie bins”.

Is this something to be worried about? Well, the government, and local councils, haven’t been very smart about installing these tags before explaining their use to the public. But that’s not unusual: A council in Australia did the same thing a few weeks back. What I think is most interesting about this is that coverage of the subject in both countries lacks depth, pandering to the fears of its readers (The Mail may not know better, but The Press Association and The Independent should.) Even basic research would show that this sort of thing is not new, is widely used elsewhere, and has a name: Pay-by-weight.

It seems the same technology is already in use in Ireland and has, according to the company involved, reduced the amount of trash put out for collection by 40%. (There may have been some privacy uproar, but I can’t find any obvious evidence of any.) In Canada the program has been in place since 1994, and as of 1999 more than 1.5 million transponders have been deployed throughout the world, including the U.S., although there have been problems with the technology (this being RFID an’ all.)

That said, just because it’s being used elsewhere doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. Trash is as much a privacy issue as anything linked to personal property, and the angry response to the news is related to an individual’s desire to keep what they throw out a secret (however illogical this is, given you’re putting it in an unlocked plastic bin in the street for hours, if not days, before it’s picked up.) Further research into what these RFID chips are capable of isn’t particularly reassuring: The SULO device for example (PDF file), can measure exact weight, when the bin is emptied, can report any damage to the bin, and, if linked to other equipment, could also locate where the bin was emptied. Nothing too sinister about this, but it increases the possibility, at least in theory, that an individual’s trash is no longer as anonymous as it was.

Bottom line? I don’t think this is likely, and given the technology has been in active service for more than a decade. But who knows where the technology may go? This is more a story about how RFID — although it’s not really identified in the story as such — scares people when they hear about it because instinctively they recognise its power. No one would disagree with the goal — reducing the amount of non-recyclable waste — but, as with all technologies, Pay by weight has to be handled carefully, its usage and goals explained, and clear and transparent limits to its usage imposed.

Portability Over Quality: The MP3 Scam

I happen to be a new fan of Alva Noto, whose minimalist bleeps and hisses may not be everyone’s cup of tea. (My wife thinks we have mice.) Anyway, I’m also testing headphones so I’m sitting outside by the communal pool taking in his second album with Ryuichi Sakamoto (my hero; I once interviewed him in such a grovelling fashion I couldn’t bring myself to watch the recording of it afterwards. I think my toughest question was “What do you think makes you so talented?”) with a pair of Logitech noise-cancellers (I’d have to take them off to tell you which make, and I’m not going to do that.)

But all this reminded me of an interview I read recently between Alva Noto (real name: Carsten Nicolai) and Robin Rimbaud, in which they discussed, among other things, how music is listened to, and treated, differently in the age of MP3. Rimbaud, himself a performing artist, asks Nicolai about the influence of “mobile listening” on him and his audience:

I listen to music more in a mobile situation because there isn’t much time to just sit down and listen anymore. I now have this obsession for headphones, which is probably born from this way of listening! I have a set for every situation!

Kind of interesting, I reckon. Reduced time available, and technology, has made music much more of a mobile activity now. I personally love listening to music or speech when I’m walking, hiking or jogging because I love the subliminal associations the mind makes between what one sees and what one is hearing. Views become associated with songs, or ideas expressed, with whatever you were listening to when you saw that view for the first time.

But there is a downside: Do we ever sit still and listen to music? Do we ever give it our full attention? Worse, perhaps, is that fact that the emphasis on portability has reduced the emphasis on quality — when was the last time sometime stressed the quality of a music device over its storage? As Rimbaud points out:

For digital cameras we are sold a machine that exploits quality — it’s sold on the strength of how many mega pixels each camera offers, whereas with MP3 players it’s never on the actual quality of the music but the quantity.

Nicolai agrees:

I think this shows a problem for our time — compression has taken over the quality in sound. Transmitting and distribution of the sound file is more important than the quality and I wonder if next year the industry will pick up on this and tell us “listen, last year you bought compressed audio, now you need to buy the real thing”. We’ve already re-bought our LPs as CDs, then as digital versions. Now quality will come back as a marketing strategy.

Could be. Perhaps as storage becomes meaningless — when your iPod can store your music collection many times over –  we’ll be told that 128 kbps is not enough and we need to buy all our MP3 files all over again. And so the circus continues.

The Hidden Channel on MP3s

Why don’t MP3 files contain ‘hidden’ channel like DVDs do? Or do they? It would be a great way to cater to the modern remix culture, the podcasting revolution, the audio commentary and soundseeing movement.

I wrote a few months back about podentaries, my ridiculous term for what I later found was already a thriving, if somewhat limited movement. The idea is basically to offer an audio accompaniment to more or less anything, not just confined to washed-up ex-directors pontificating on their old movies (parodied imperfectly by Rob Brydon), but also to music (take it to a Beethoven concert, an alternative to the stodgy guided tour, to TV series).

But surely it’s easy enough to add an extra channel to an MP3 file, that, with some software, can be released and mixed into the original music or sound? This would solve all sorts of problems of synchronization, and allow musicians, commentators or anyone who likes to include their tuppence worth to the recording. (“Now, if you listen carefully in the background a few bars ahead, you can hear me fluffing the first few notes of my ukelele solo”).

Of course, it needn’t stop there. You could capitalize on the already burgeoning Remix Culture by releasing songs that can have their drumtrack, say, removed by listeners to turn it into a bit of chilled out ambient fun, or have the voice track mutable so karaoke enthusiasts could have a go. I’m sure this kind of thing is already available in some format or other. I just haven’t seen any.

In short, when is the MP3 player, the iTunes of our age, going to become a mini mixer so we ordinary folk who might not want to remix from the bottom up can at least redesign songs to our tastes, and, perhaps more interestingly dig into some hidden channels that tell us more about what we’re listening to?

Urine, Corrosion, And The Decay Of Bridges

You have to feel sorry for designers, particularly bridge designers. How can you factor in all the variables that will determine whether your bridge survives?

Take for example, a bridge in Palembang, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Built between 1962 and 1965, the 1,177-meter long and 22-meter wide bridge was named after the then president, Sukarno. When he fell from grace it was renamed Ampera (short for Amanat Penderitaan Rakyat or the Mandate of People’s Pain, according to The Jakarta Post, In Memory Of The Suffering of the People, according to others. They were difficult times and bridge namers were not given to levity). It is a distinctive-looking bridge, with two tall towers standing like guillotines above the Musi river. It is, in short, the pride of the region.

photo by Audy Mirza Alwi

It has been repaired a few times. The Post says it was renovated in 1981 after fears that flaws in the original construction might cause it to collapse. More recently the Japanese have funded (PDF) efforts to rehabilitate the bridge, especially after some serious underwater damage (mindful, no doubt, that the bridge was originally funded by war reparations from the Pacific War.) Despite some problems (like ships bumping into the bridge), the Japanese were able to report in late 2002 that “The project has contributed positively, based on the master plan, to urban development”.

Well, up to a point. Last Friday, The Jakarta Post carried a story headlined “Bridge in Palembang may collapse due to excessive urination”. Not really much more needs to be said, but let’s spell it out. The bridge is sloping. This ‘irregular slant’ had been confirmed by Professor Annas Ali, a highway and bridge expert at the public works office who conducted research on the bridge recently (presumably by standing on it and noticing that he was not standing, as we engineers call it, ‘straight’).

Upon further inspection officials noted that, in the words of the Post, “one of the reasons for the apparent structural deterioration was due to the frequency of people urinating on one of the steel pillars of the bridge, causing it weaken due to the corrosive forces of human urine.” This deterioration can be measured since you can actually feel the bridge ‘resonating’. This was proven by the head of the city’s transportation office, Syaidina Ali, who advised the Post reporter to ”try standing on the Ampera bridge. If the traffic passing on the bridge is heavy, you can feel it moving quite a bit.” Presumably he did not advise standing under the bridge in case a colleague was corrosion testing.

If someone had been, it wasn’t anyone from the highway and bridge department at the Palembang Public Works Office, whose head, Azmi Lakoni, was quoted by the Post as saying that his office had not yet done research on the condition of the bridge. But Mr Lakoni did agree on the urine theory. “The office has not yet done thorough tests on the slant of the bridge,” he said, ”but we are concerned that one of its main support piers has been weakened by urine, as it is a popular spot for locals to relieve themselves.”

This is not the only problem facing the bridge, and it’s another bitter lesson for bridge designers. “Another problem that was pointed out,” the Post report continues, “was that people had stolen pieces of the bridge.” This is always a hazard for bridges, but not uncommon in Indonesia (or Australia, thanks to Taka. As the Post explains: “In 1998, when the country was simultaneously in a state of euphoria and confusion sparked by the reformasi movement, thieves were known to have dismantled some parts of the bridge” by climbing the two towers and removing bits of them. It’s not clear from the report whether they were euphoric or confused when they did this, but one can only hope they were not relieving themselves.

My advice to tourists thinking of visiting the area: Avoid the bridge until this whole problem is sorted. But if you do find yourself in the area you now know of a good rest stop.

Bluetooth Jackets For The Hip – And The Hip-Replaced

Thanks to Martin Herfurt for this: A jacket that, via Bluetooth, doubles as an entertainment centre, complete with (1) hands-free set with microphone in the collar and voice recognition, (2) integrated headphone connection, (3) flexible keyboard embodied into the material and (4) docking station for an MP3 player with a Bluetooth headset:

The HUB-Jacket comes with 128 Megabyte memory offers enough storage capacity for two hours of music. The MP3 files are loaded into the module from a PC via a USB cable. The fabric keyboard woven into the jacket’s left-hand sleeve “can be comfortably operated even when wearing gloves”. All the electronic connections “are sewn directly into the textile material. They are thus out of sight, robust and enable total freedom of movement”. If this is not enough for you, a “helmet with integrated headphones is also available as an option”. The Bluetooth module in the player allows the user to operate a mobile phone. And, in case you’re wondering, the electronic hardware “is tough enough to withstand repeated falls and washing sessions”. The HUB is part of O’Neill’s Winter Collection and costs 500 euros.

Actually, the HUB-Jacket ain’t alone. There’s the Memswear prototype from my Singaporean neighbours up the road which senses when the owner — presumably an elderly person — has taken a fall and puts in an emergency phone call via Bluetooth. (Here’s the original CNN story). And Nike has developed a Comm-Jacket which, according to DPA, “fitted with an integrated microphone and earplugs and a plug for a walkie-talkie”.

How To Eliminate Offline Swaging And Avoid A P-Punch

I read a lot of press releases in a day, but usually I try to read them in the early morning, because they seem to make more sense then. Don’t ask me why. But rarely do I enjoy reading a press release; they’re boring, self-promoting (of course), hard to decipher and often not closely related to my field of work (technology column-ing). But I’ve just received one (subscription required) which I found a joy to read, and reaffirms my belief that my chosen profession (technology columnist) is the right one.

I reprint it here in full, so you can enjoy it as much as I did:

Device Technologies Introduces Push-Lok™

Simply Elegant Technology Precisely Space Daughter Boards from Chassis or Mother Boards

November 2004 (Newstream) — Device Technologies, Inc. is pleased to announce a new product line of Push-Lok™ Printed Circuit Board Standoffs that eliminate offline swaging of screw machine standoffs.

When seated, the pre-assembled drive pin secures the Push-Lok Standoff to the chassis to maintain its integrity under standard tailgate drop-tests. The fastener portion has a minimum protrusion but will sit flush with a shallow dimple in the chassis.

The latch is both flexible and secure enough to allow for easy assembly of the daughter board and eliminate the need for torque driven screws. Field Service, repairs and modifications are equally efficient by simply deflecting the flexible latch.

DTI’s complete Push-Lok solution also offers a P-Punch, spring loaded pin driving tool to allow easy assembly on the production line. Push-Lok is made of UL94V2 Type 66 nylon and UL94V0 on special order.

Now, some of you may be wondering just how much offline swaging of those screw machine standoffs these Push-Lok thingies manage to achieve. Well, I’ve checked with MA-based Device Technologies, who not only make Push-Lok™ printed circuit board stand-offs (as if!) but also design, manufacture, and sell cable management solutions, including cost effective and NEBS compliant Spring Fast® Composite Grommet Edging, Fast-Drop™ fiber optic radius control modules, and I am here to tell you, right now: It’s a lot.

Under standard tailgate drop-tests (this ISO-approved test involves dropping a standard Push-Lok standoff off back of moving pick-up) the integrity of the Push-Lok is maintained, and if you really need to mess around with it in the field, you can just deflect the flexible latch. Just make sure you’re not showing any shallow dimples on your chassis, especially in front of anyone’s daughter board. If you do, get ready to be P-Punched.

A Word To The Wise: Fat Start Menus

A little trick not all of you may have been aware of: The Windows Start menu — and each column within the Programs submenu — grows in width according to the names of the programs and documents in it. Any long-winded name will immediately increase the width of the whole column, and all the other columns if your Programs Menu stretches to more than one. Like this:

To avoid these columns taking up too much space, it’s worth spending a bit of time renaming the programs, folders and whatever you have in these lists so they’re short and pithy. (To do this right click over the entry and select ‘rename’.) Once you’ve whittled down the longest culprits you’ll notice the columns shrinking in width. The thinner they are, the more you can fit on and the more you can see of the Desktop. Like this: